HARTFORD – The night started with mayhem. It ended in shocking fashion with fans storming the court and beer and popcorn being thrown in the air.
Most importantly for UConn, its electric 71-69 win over No. 8 Villanova at a fiery XL Center was the team’s 20th of the season and 11th in Big East play against only five losses.
How did it evolve? Fasten your safety belts. This was easily the Huskies’ most memorable win since Jalen Adams hit the 75-footer at the buzzer to force a fourth overtime versus Cincinnati in the 2016 AAC Tournament.
With five minutes left in the first half and UConn up 24-23, Tyrese Martin grabbed an offensive rebound and fought through contact on a putback attempt. His shot was blocked and no foul was called. In reaction, UConn coach Dan Hurley slammed the scorer’s table with both of his hands in disgust. The refs let Villanova’s fast break play out and then, much to Hurley and the crowd’s dismay, gave him his first technical foul.
After arguing, Hurley looked at the crowd waved his both of his arms up to get a reaction (a staple move of his) and the fans went nuts. Not amused, James Breeding gave Hurley his second technical foul and tossed him from the game. Hurley had a few more words for the officials, gave his team a quick pep talk, and headed on his way. During his exit, he got a rousing ovation from the crowd, gave a fan a high-five, screamed an f-bomb and then headed into the tunnel.
“It’s happened to me before, so I knew how to handle it,” Hurley joked. “I know how to walk out, unfortunately for me.”
In a more serious tone: “Obviously, I was in shock just because of the two situations. Tyrese had missed a finish in the paint, I turned and kind of hit the scorer’s table and there was about a five or six second delay and then I got a technical foul. Then I felt (Colin) Gillespie was getting close to shooting the free throws, I turned to get the crowd loud while he was shooting the technical and they threw me out.
“It was surreal. I am very eager to find out from the head of (Big East) officials to hear what the explanation was.”
In Hurley’s place, Associate Head Coach Kimani Young took over.
Both teams went back and forth in the second half. Adama Sanogo, after struggling against the Wildcats in a loss 17 days earlier, had a much better game this time around, registering 20 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Isaiah Whaley was solid with 13 points and Andre Jackson put on another passing show with eight assists and his usual strong defensive effort.
Gillespie and Brandon Slater went 4-of-4 from the line to give Villanova (21-7, 14-4) a four-point lead with 46 seconds left. UConn then turned it over, but caught a break when Caleb Daniels missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
Young called timeout and drew up a play which ultimately saved the Huskies. RJ Cole inbounded to Andre Jackson, who handed it off to Tyler Polley while simultaneously setting a screen. Polley went around Jackson’s defender and hit a three to bring UConn within one. The Huskies and the crowd suddenly had life again.
“(The coaches) drew up a play trying to get a quick three,” Polley said. “I just knew I was going to shoot it as soon as I got it. I was not trying to think about it and just trying to make a play and it went in. I just thank my coaches for trusting me with the ball. In that situation, after being out for like a good four minutes, it was just an amazing (feeling).”
“We were confident,” Young noted. “We weren’t happy to be down four, but we still knew there was time on the clock. We work on late game execution every single day, so the confidence comes from that type of preparation and you just saw it tonight.”
Hurley was certainly impressed with Young.
“This guy is one of the best associate head coaches in the country,” Hurley said. “The rest of the staff just did an unbelievable job. The smartest thing I’ve done my whole career is hire the best coaches in the country to work with. This guy next to me, I can’t say enough how unbelievable this guy is at his job.”
Villanova inbounded to Gillespie, who only attempted nine field goals as he was swarmed all night by Jackson and Cole. Fittingly, those two teamed up and forced a jump ball. In maybe the biggest break of the game, UConn had the possession arrow on its side and regained the ball.
It’s no secret Cole is UConn’s best playmaker. Young called a timeout with 17.5 seconds left and knew who he wanted to take the game-deciding shot.
“RJ has been as important of a player we’ve had here in a long time, on both ends of the floor,” Young said.
Down to 10 seconds remaining, Martin handed it off to Cole at the top of the key. A lefty, Cole had his strong side cut off by Slater. Undeterred, Cole drove to his right and floated it up with his off-hand just outside the restricted area in the paint. The shot went in. UConn up one.
“I was trying to go downhill going left, but he kind of sat on my left hand, so I just went right and was hoping the ball would go in the basket,” Cole said.
His night wasn’t finished. There was one more item of business to take care of. As the clock ticked down, Gillespie raced the length of the court trying to get one last shot. At the very last second, Cole stepped in to take the charge. Only one second remained. Ballgame.
“That’s a winning play,” Young said. “It’s something he’s done all year. It was no surprise there. It showed his toughness, his grit and his will.”
Jackson hit a free throw and then fired his second attempt off the rim to run out the clock, giving the Huskies their first win over Villanova since the 2014 NCAA Tournament. When the buzzer sounded, the crowd stormed the court and went wild for the next 10 minutes. It was the first time a UConn crowd rushed the playing area since 2010 when the Huskies upset No. 1 Texas at Gampel. No one in the pressroom after the game could remember a time it ever happened in Hartford.
The crowd, on fire from the moment gates opened, continued its fury throughout the night, with Hurley’s ejection spurring even more motivation.
“That’s what college sports is about,” Young said. “I think for all of those guys to have that kind of memory is something they are going to remember forever. It’s an awesome experience. It was an awesome atmosphere out there.
“Listen, I know we are UConn, but we deserved to storm the court tonight.”
Added Hurley: “It’s kind of weird seeing UConn storm the court, but the fans deserve it.”
It was a come-full-circle moment for Polley and Whaley, who are only two players left from the 2018 team, which got blasted by Villanova in Hartford the season before Hurley arrived.
“It was amazing (seeing the court stormed), I wasn’t even expecting it,” Polley said. “Compared to my freshman year, the way they beat us here in XL in front of a sold-out crowd to where we are now, it’s just a great feeling. It shows how far we have come as a program. This was a big-time win, I am not going to lie.”
A win that certainly will be remembered for a long time.